Features: Harnessing the healing power of wild swimming
Plunging into the sea or a loch is energising, healing and fun, says Anna Deacon who has co-written a book inspired by her passion for wild swimming
Swimming in the cold waters around Scotland has always been part of my family culture. My great-grandmother was a big fan of swimming and swam in the sea, where she lived in Shetland, at any given opportunity. She did it to ease the pain of her rheumatism, but also for the sheer joy of it. It’s only in recent years I’ve discovered we may be finding a similar relief there.
My favourite childhood memories nearly all involve water of some sort: guddling around the little river in Nethy Bridge looking for minnows, squealing in the cold water at Loch Insh, picnics around River Feshie, paddling with the ducks in Loch Morlich, shouting and hearing our voices echoing across to the ruined castle on the island at Loch An Eilean.
I lived in London for 20 years, navigating my way around the busy city, working with rock bands and music festivals, doing extremely long hours. Whilst it was ridiculously fun and hedonistic, I always hankered after the cool, pine-scented peace of the Cairngorms. I used to wish to escape the grime, traffic and noise to walk the banks of the peaty lochs, listen to the calling of the birds and the wind rustling the leaves of the silver birch trees. Whenever I could escape, I would get the sleeper train up to my parents’ home in Kingussie and get my fix of nature and family for the weekend. I would step off the train after a fairly rubbish sleep, inhale the fresh mountain air, and feel an instant relief. It was a chance to stop and recharge.
I moved with my family – husband and two kids – to Edinburgh three years ago for a new start away from London. I felt so drawn to the sea, and was delighted to discover a quiet little bay, next to Granton Harbour near my new home. I was keen to swim there, but I never saw another swimmer and guessed the water was probably a bit grim too. I walked on the beach most days and felt myself relaxing as I watched the skyline. I would sit on the beach after the school run and just watch the water, the sea birds and the occasional seal.
My cousin who lives down in East Lothian took me off for a hike around the time we moved, and when she jumped in the sea at the end I thought she was a bit mad. But then all of a sudden the memories of swimming in freezing lochs as a child with my sister came flooding back. Could I reignite this childlike joy in myself as a nearly 40-year-old? We swam up and down together at Gullane beach watching the birds diving, and the sun setting on the golden water, and it was just magical. I was hooked.
After that we swam regularly together, whenever I could escape down the coast. But by this time I wanted more, I wanted to be in the sea as much as I could. I joined a Portobello swimming group and discovered there were more people who wanted to swim at my local beach, Wardie Bay. So we met, a few at first, but gradually joined by more and more. A motley crew, we had nothing in common, but joined by our love of the water we bonded. We swim together most Sunday afternoons, come rain or shine, snow or wind.
I walk down the tiny steps to the bay and my heart always lifts to see the array of dry robes, towels and the occasional bonfire.
In September last year, I had taken on too much work and I was juggling children and jobs, pets and school runs and it all got too much. I lost perspective and began to feel panicky and anxious. Alongside that, my joints and sciatica were at times so painful that walking down to the beach was an effort.
But like my greatgrandmother, I was finding relief in the water. Immersing myself in the cold, salty water always took my breath away, but also took my stress and pain away, and my walk home, although uphill all the way, felt much easier.
My cousin and I had a wonderful swim at Tyninghame one morning – the Bass Rock was covered in haar, the beach was deserted and the air was completely still and almost muffled, like when it is about to snow. The waves though were bouncy and fun. It was a turning point for me. After some battering from the waves I felt my stress begin to ebb away and the belly laughs begin and we played like children, utterly in thrall to the sea. I had brought my camera with me on the walk and felt so inspired by everything around me, I started photographing the beach, and then Lil in the waves, and I realised I needed to get in the water to get the right angle of her wonderfully joyous face. This was where the book began as my two passions combined. I took my camera to the beach for my next regular swim and took some photos of my swim group. I asked them to tell me a bit about why they swam and I was astonished at their stories, it seemed everyone had a reason for coming to the water. I started an Instagram account as a place to put these little stories and portraits, and started researching cold water swimming for healing.
It was around this time that I met journalist and author
After some battering from the waves I felt my stress begin to ebb away and the belly laughs begin and we played like children, utterly in thrall to the sea
Vicky Allan, a fellow wild swimmer, and the book idea really started to come to life. We sparked off each other’s energy and started to research the topic in earnest, swimming and chatting as we went.
We spent the following year meeting the most amazing people, swimming with them, interviewing them, taking their portraits. We were moved to tears with stories of pain, loss, depression, anxiety, we were pushed beyond our boundaries ice swimming, climbing hills to hidden healing pools, and leaping into waterfalls. We found people to be evangelistic in their love for outdoor swimming, wanting to share their stories and encourage others to join in, sharing how the water helped them in their own journeys to healing. Our book is a collection of these stories, a love story if you like about wild, outdoor swimming and those glorious souls who do it, alongside expert advice from seasoned sea swimmers, doctors, psychiatrists, and water safety experts.
As with so many of the swimmers we met, Vicky and I found ourselves being welcomed by an incredibly inclusive, non-judgmental community of swimmers and dippers, who watch out for one another, lend comfort, share cakes and stories around a cosy fire, hands wrapped around a warm drink, inspiring one another with wonderful new locations to swim, joining together for adventures and discussing huge life stories in a safe place.
Researching the medical evidence on cold water swimming for depression and pain relief was really eye-opening too. According to Dr Mark Harper, who has led studies into cold water immersion and its effects on our bodies, “When you put your face in cold water, you get this massive parasympathetic stimulation and that reduces inflammation, and that works through the vagus nerve.”
My great-grandmother wasright.itdoeslookasifa dip in cold water does work some magic with pain and inflammation. Her story, were she around, could easily be one of the many in our book.
● Taking The Plunge: The Healing Power of Wild Swimming for Mind, Body & Soul by Anna Deacon and Vicky Allan is out today through Black & White Publishing, £20. The authors will be at Waterstones West End, Edinburgh, on Thursday 14 November, 6:30pm, tickets available online and in store.
Clockwise from main: wild swimmers at Portobello for the launch of Taking The Plunge; Anna Deacon by the sea as a child; with co-author Vicky Allan, left, at the book’s launch; the idea for a book was born after Anna started taking portraits of fellow swimmers